WACO, Texas -- Baylor began spring practice Tuesday, but the talk of Waco wasn’t what was going on inside the Allison Indoor Practice Facility.
Of larger concern was those other Bears, the ones making their way to New Orleans for their NCAA tournament appearance on Thursday. Perhaps even more remarkable, they’ll play as a No. 3 seed and are a trendy Final Four pick in the South region.
Not long ago, that seemed impossible.
In 2003, a player was murdered by a teammate. Numerous NCAA violations, including unreported positive drug tests and giving money to recruits, meant heavy penalties for the Bears.
Among those was an unprecedented “half-season” penalty, which prevented the Baylor from playing any nonconference games in the 2005-06 season, after going 4-28 in conference play in the two years before the punishment was enacted.
Just four seasons later, the Bears ascended to a tie atop the Big 12 South and had the best overall record in the division.
“It’s very encouraging, because nobody thought our boys’ basketball team could do what they’ve been doing, and I think they have a chance to win it all,” said receiver Kendall Wright.
Few peg Baylor as a contender to win the South next fall, but why not in the years that follow?
It takes more than just a franchise quarterback to win in the Big 12, but Baylor’s success on the hardwood emerged from a smoldering crater the size of the Ferrell Center. Football’s foundation is much firmer.
It has its coach, Art Briles, who fended off the advances of Texas Tech in the offseason and reaffirmed his commitment to building at Baylor. Robert Griffin has established the Bears as more than an easy win, but there’s still plenty of work to do after a pair of 4-8 seasons.
“What we gotta do is keep recruiting better, keep working ‘em better and our results need to get better,” Briles said.
Briles said on Tuesday he’s encouraged now by what he says is his best two-deep yet at Baylor, with competition at nearly every position, and there’s little reason to not expect further progress.
“[Expectations] were really high last year, and things just didn’t go our way,” said Griffin, the man on the field Baylor fans hope leads them out of the bottom of the Big 12 South. “We can’t worry about those expectations, we just have to worry about what we can control.”
Baylor has never won the South. It might be awhile before it does. But the progress the team has made toward that goal, and goals past winning just the division, are impossible to ignore.
“It’s all a process, we just happen to be doing it in what I think is arguably the toughest division in all of college football,” Briles said. “And that’s what makes it so rewarding to me as a coach and to us, our players. Because when you’ve done something, you’ve done something. That’s what we want it to be. There are no shallow victories in the Big 12 South.”